Private Choices, Public Consequences: Examining Public Education Reform Through a Feminist Lens

41 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2006 Last revised: 30 May 2010

See all articles by Verna L. Williams

Verna L. Williams

University of Cincinnati - College of Law


Using the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris as a focal point, this article examines the meaning of private choice in public education reform. In Zelman, the Court addressed the validity of the Cleveland city schools' voucher program, which provided public money for students to attend private parochial schools. The Court concluded that because the program gave parents a "true private choice" it did not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. This article submits that the subtext of the decision, however, suggests that the Justices were influenced by the abysmal condition of the Cleveland schools and were reluctant to tie the hands of public officials seeking to remedy the shortcomings of a system that had failed primarily poor students of color. The article foregrounds this concern and applies critical feminist theory to interrogate the meaning of choice in this context. In this connection, the article examines the events that lead to enactment of the voucher program at issue in Zelman: specifically, three decades of school desegregation litigation characterized by state "recalcitrance," "hostility" and "reckless maladministration," in the words of the district court. The article concludes that the crisis precipitating enactment of the voucher program was a crisis of the state's own making. In this regard, the article posits, the voucher program entrenched historic and ongoing racial subordination in the school system, and in so doing, failed to provide meaningful, nondiscriminatory choices to parents, as understood by critical feminist theory.

Keywords: Education Reform, Feminism, School Choice

JEL Classification: I28, J71, J78, K49

Suggested Citation

Williams, Verna L., Private Choices, Public Consequences: Examining Public Education Reform Through a Feminist Lens. William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 12, p. 563, 2006, U of Cincinnati Public Law Research Paper No. 06-05, Available at SSRN:

Verna L. Williams (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-1220 (Phone)
513-556-1236 (Fax)

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